Third-largest rail union rejects deal, renewing possibility of strike

The BMWED, the third-largest union representing freight-rail workers, announced today that its members have rejected the tentative agreement that President Joe Biden and Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh celebrated last month.

The deal announced by Biden and Walsh was only tentative, and it still required ratification from union membership to go into effect. Only 43 percent of the nearly 12,000 BMWED workers who voted approved the deal. With that rejection, striking becomes a legal option for the BMWED on November 19. Both sides have agreed to maintain the status quo and continue negotiations in the meantime.

The BMWED is the first of the twelve unions covered by national bargaining to reject the tentative deal. Four smaller unions (the American Train Dispatchers Association, the IBEW, the Transportation Communications Union, and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen) have already voted to ratify the deal. If just one union goes on strike, though, it is highly unlikely that other union members would cross a picket line, which would mean a nationwide freight-rail shutdown.

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The threat of such a shutdown was supposed to be averted last month, when Walsh and Biden announced they had helped broker a deal. Walsh emerged triumphant at five o’clock in the morning from a 20-hour session where he served negotiators Italian food and coaxed the two sides to agree, the press reports said. “This is a win for tens of thousands of rail workers and for their dignity and the dignity of their work,” Biden said last month of the tentative deal.

Enough of the workers don’t seem to agree. The BMWED represents around 24,000 workers, so about half of the union’s membership didn’t vote in the ratification election at all. But of the ones who did, more voted to reject than to approve the deal, and it was high turnout for a ratification vote, according to the BMWED statement.

It’s notable that the BMWED in particular rejected the deal. It earned specific concessions for its workers in the recommendations from the presidential emergency board (PEB) that served as part of the basis for the tentative agreement. Unlike many other specific union requests, the PEB recommended that the BMWED’s request for better coverage of travel expenses and higher meal allowances be included in the deal. Those concessions were included in the deal the union membership rejected.

Union president Tony Cardwell praised the deal at the time, noting, “It will put an end to the 65 year battle to bring BMWED Members travel allowances and away from home expenses to a rationally based structure.” Now Cardwell has changed his tune, saying in a statement today that rail workers “resent the fact that management holds no regard for their quality of life.”

The part of the deal concerning sick leave still seems to be a sticking point. The wage component includes a 24 percent raise over the five-year life of the contract, with $1,000 bonuses each year. That would be the largest wage increase in the history of national bargaining.

Senator Bernie Sanders emphasized the sick-leave component when he blocked a bill on the Senate floor that would have resolved the labor dispute. In praising the tentative agreement last month, Biden said the agreement is “about the right to go to a doctor or stay healthy and make sure you’re able to have the care you can afford.”

But as Rachel Premack reported for FreightWaves last month, the actual details of the agreement were still irking some rail workers. According to a copy of the agreement leaked to FreightWaves, “The medical care visits must take place on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday and be scheduled at least 30 days in advance.”

That may seem like a small concession, but union leadership was still happy with it because it represented the first time that carriers had agreed that sick-leave policy was part of national bargaining. Previously, those policies had been determined through grievance and arbitration processes, which is where the PEB had recommended they stay. Making these policies an issue of national bargaining allows unions to extract greater concessions in the future.

But union membership rejected the deal anyway. Biden claims to be the “most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history.” If unions decide to shut down the freight-rail network despite being offered a 24 percent raise over five years in a deal brokered by the White House, that commitment might be put to the test.

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